They called him “Too Tall Jones” because when he first came out to the field in his equipment, he looked as if someone had hung a football helmet from a fence post. Skinny and towering over the other 10-year-olds, he was told by the coaches that he’d be a defensive end — just like the Cowboys Hall of Famer.
Orleans Darkwa didn’t want to play that position. He wanted to be like Steve McNair and Eddie George, the Titans players who were dashing around the field with the ball in their hands while he was growing up in Nashville. But he was excited just to be playing. So much so that on his very first drill, he forgot to put his mouthpiece in place, tried to tackle a ballcarrier, and missed the rest of practice with a chipped tooth.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Darkwa told Newsday. “It was an angle tackling drill, I went up there lollygagging, and BOOM! It didn’t end well.”
Darkwa’s father had seen enough. No more football. It was too dangerous.
“I bugged him for like two weeks straight, crying,” Darkwa recalled. “ ‘Let me play! Let me play!’ Finally he said OK and he let me back out there.”
With that obstacle cleared, Darkwa moved on to the next one — his position.
The team lost its first game, and the next week, while getting ready for the second one, Darkwa pestered his coaches: Let me run the ball! Let me be like Eddie! The answer was no. He even asked to be a fullback just to get a carry. Nope.
Finally, with his nagging wearing at the coaches, they made him an offer. He could get three carries if he promised to never ask to do it again. He agreed.
“I took all three to the house,” he said. “Coach said: ‘All right, we’ve got a new running back.’ ”
BE LIKE EDDIE
Orleans Darkwa always has had to wave his arms and jump up and down to get noticed when it comes to running a football. It was that way when the big schools didn’t recruit him and he wound up playing college ball at Tulane. It was that way when he entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Dolphins. And, for most of his nearly two years with the Giants after they signed him from the Miami practice squad on Nov. 12, 2014, it’s been that way here.
With Shane Vereen sidelined for at least a few months (if not the rest of the season) with a triceps injury and Rashad Jennings listed as questionable while he deals with a thumb injury that kept him out of last week’s game against Washington, Darkwa is in line to be the Giants’ starting running back on Monday night against the Vikings.
At the very least, he’s sure to get more than the allotted three carries he had as a 10-year-old.
“Darkwa is very tough and he’s versatile,” Giants offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said. “He can run hard, he’s very aware of our pass-protection schemes and he catches the ball well . . . I’m glad he’s here and he’s certainly someone who if he’s called upon we have great confidence in.”
Darkwa always has had a knack for finding the end zone. As a senior in high school, he scored 24 touchdowns. In four years at Tulane, he scored 39, including 11 as a freshman. Despite getting only 41 carries in his first two seasons with the Giants, he scored twice. And this season, with only 11 carries, he already has a touchdown.
“I’ve been fortunate. I’ve always had a good O-line,” he said. “When I first played, I said I’m just going to run as fast as I can as hard as I can and hopefully I wouldn’t get hurt. I’d hurt them.
“Let me do what Eddie does, basically.”
HIS FORMER QB KNOWS
Most teams would lose their top two running backs and be despondent. The Giants almost seem intrigued because they’ll get to see Darkwa project the flashes he has shown in small doses in a much larger workload.
“Orleans always runs hard,” guard Justin Pugh said. “Even going back to last year, he puts his head down and he’s going to get some yards. I’m excited for him to get the opportunity. That’s huge, that’s something that you dream about, to be the starting running back. He’s going to have his chance on Monday Night Football.”
Since the start of the 2015 season, Darkwa has been just as productive as his more experienced teammates above him on the depth chart. During that time, he has averaged 4.36 yards per carry to Jennings’ 4.27 and Vereen’s 4.42.
“He’s big and he’s fast,” said defensive tackle Damon Harrison, who faces Darkwa in practice and also played against him last year as a Jet. “You wouldn’t expect him to be as fast and as quick as he is with his size and he also has some good vision, so I knew once he got his opportunity . . . ”
They knew that back in Nashville when Darkwa first ran with a football under his arm and shed the image of a goofy, gangly kid with a chipped tooth. His quarterback on that team knew it.
“He was the man, to say the least,” said Red Sox rightfielder Mookie Betts, a candidate for American League MVP this season and the player who gave Darkwa those three handoffs.
The two haven’t kept in touch much — they went to different high schools and now, as pro athletes, their schedules are pretty different — but they run into each other back in Nashville every so often. And they certainly follow each other’s exploits.
“He’s been doing great, man,” Betts said of Darkwa. “It’s definitely good to see somebody from my hometown, somebody I played with, make it.”
He hasn’t yet. Not in a big way. But as Betts knows better than almost anyone, once Darkwa is given a chance, good things usually happen.
With Erik Boland
RB, No. 26
Vitals: 6-0, 210
Born Orleans Opoku-Darkwa
on Feb. 28, 1992 in Nashville (age 24)
Road to NY
— Undrafted free agent signed by Dolphins in 2014, released Oct. 6
— Signed by Giants on Nov. 12
11 carriers / 52 yards / 1 TD